Two developments will influence the future development of camcorders. The first will be solid-state memory, which will eventually replace tapes and discs. The second is high-definition video. We've seen tape-based HD cams from Sony, and their visuals are little short of amazing when viewed on a HD-Ready TV. What a shame they're so bulky and expensive.
Enter the compact Xacti HD from Sanyo, a company that doesn't automatically make you think camcorders. Looking more like an electric shaver - and just as comfortable to handle - the HD combines memory-card storage (a 2GB SD card is supplied) with the ability to shoot video at a progressively-scanned 280x720 (720p). There's also the ability to shoot standard-def video (640x480 in this case) or JPEG still images.
Video and photos alike can be viewed on a flip-out 2.2in organic LED screen that also acts as a viewfinder. Supplied with the HD is a docking station, which can be plugged into an HD-Ready TV's component-video input for big-screen viewing. A second cable is provided for standard video. As an alternative, the docking station can be connected to a PC via a USB port.
The HD may be small, but the all-important 5.-megapixel CCD image-sensor benefits from a 0x optical zoom. This is operated with a slider control on the back of the unit. Buttons to the left and right of this snap photos or start/stop video recording. Underneath this is a slider that switches between recording and playback.
A joypad-like device intuitively selects content for playback, and operates the sensibly-designed menu system that configures the unit. Among the options on offer are exposure and shutter-speed selection, white-balance adjustment, six AE presets, an electronic image-stabiliser, manual-focus, macro, ND filter, sequential still-photography, self-timer and flash modes.
A button on the side of the HD switches between HD and SD ('normal') shooting modes. In the menus, users can set the quality for each. Two HD options are provided: 9Mbps and 6Mbps, both of which capture in 6:9 and employ a refresh rate of 30fps. Using higher bitrates should result in better quality, at the expense of storage capacity.
In the 9Mbps setting, a minute of video will consume around 65MB. All HD-Ready TVs can deal with this video. Then there are the four SD presets. For digital stills the HD is furnished with a choice of six image resolutions. Audiowise, the HD captures 28kbps stereo sound with microphone capsules built into the back of the LCD screen - which faces the scene when the screen is flipped out.
To reduce handling and wind- noise, a filter can be engaged. Interestingly, Sanyo has made provision for an external microphone. Audio-only recording is also suitably supported. We were impressed with the design and usability of the HD, and with the exception of Sanyo's choice of video refresh-rates there's plenty in the cam's favour as far as features and functionality are concerned.
The HD is also capable of taking decent-quality photos under good lighting conditions. Unfortunately, the video quality lets it all down. Unless there's plenty of light, camera-grain throws the MPEG4 encoding process into a digital fizz - regardless of whether you're using the 6Mbps or 9Mbps mode. Such artefacting masks the enhanced detail that is the whole point of HD.
And that's with a fairly static shot; pans are so noisy and juddery that they're nearly useless. All of the elements of a forward-thinking camcorder are there, but it seems that the Sanyo Xacti HD is just too ahead of its time. This is a real shame, because a resilient and pocket-sized HD-capable device would appeal to many. Were Sanyo to address the video, it could have a world-beater on its hands. But as it stands, the HD is little more than an expensive toy with no or little serious filmmaking potential.